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Philadelphia exposes conundrum in Miami’s title chances

Breaking down what transpired in the closing minutes of last night’s Heat loss and what could happen in the playoffs.

NBA: Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat had a rare uninspiring performance in a rather forgettable 113-106 defeat to the James Harden and Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers on Monday, dropping their hold of the first seed in the Eastern Conference to just two and a half games.

In what’s been a rather remarkable campaign for a Heat team that has surpassed preseason expectations in terms of overall record amidst injuries to key players, performances like the one Miami had in the finale of their season series against Philadelphia haven’t occurred regularly.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t take place. This latest contest was another glaring example of that.

The Heat are well-known for their “culture” that’s predicated partly on hard-nosed, unrelenting, and tough basketball. In Pennsylvania, they were out-worked, out-played, and out-coached, the latter another rare instance.

That’s not to say Miami completely crapped the bed. While imperfect, they still played good enough to win, and it would have been a low-key good one to get given that fringe 76ers role players were opportunistically hot from the field despite missing their main creators. Moreover, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Kyle Lowry had 27, 22, and 20 points, respectively. Caleb Martin also contributed 14 points off the bench.

But other important pieces who are essential to Miami’s success didn’t fare so well, which opened the door for Philly’s underdog triumph. Following a nine-game stretch in March where he averaged 26 points a contest on 51.3% shooting, Tyler Herro had his first dud in a while with only 10 points on 5-of-15 field goals, including 0-of-3 from downtown and 0 free throw attempts.

His streak of consecutive games with at least 12 points in the second quarter ended and it wasn’t a coincidence that was when the 76ers took control of the game’s momentum and never truly relinquished it the rest of the way, much to the delight of the cheesesteak-loving Philly faithful. The Heat led by six after 12 minutes and were outscored by 13 the next 36.

Duncan Robinson only had five points, Max Strus missed all five of his shots, and PJ Tucker scored just two points in another forgettable performance. One of this past off-season’s underrated signings, Tucker, who once led the NBA in 3-point % this season, has now only hit one 3-ball in his last 11 games. For a starting unit that’s already got issues with floor spacing, this latest development only compounds that worry.

(The 5-man line-up of Lowry-Tucker-Butler-Adebayo-Robinson, which averages 13.9 minutes played in the 27 games they’ve been together, is shooting an average of only 32.3% from downtown when they share the floor, per NBA Stats.)

Miami shot 47.5% from the field and went a perfect 20-of-20 from the charity stripe, but shot only 10-of-33 from deep. Philadelphia hit 50% from the field and made 5 more 3-pointers. The key statistic was rebounding, as the 76ers pulled down 45 boards to the Heat’s 34, including 11 offensive rebounds that were largely responsible for the winning team’s six more shot attempts than their opposition — a clear sign of which team showed more hustle.

Even if the statistics weren’t favoring them, Miami still had a solid opportunity to close out the victory when back-to-back baskets from Adebayo, who had scoring success moving off-ball as opposed to post ups, scored on consecutive lob passes from Herro that put the Heat ahead 99-96 with 5:10 to go.

At that point, however, the Tyrese Maxey takeover was already unfurling. Limited by foul trouble the first three quarters, Philly’s sophomore sensation – who the Heat could have had with their 2020 first-round draft pick – scored 13 of his 28 points in the final period. He converted two consecutive baskets right before Adebayo dunked his, and looking back at it now, those were the clear warning signs of what was to come.

The final minutes of the game, which turned from tightly-contested to one-sided in what felt like a blink of an eye, highlighted two major concerns for Miami’s title aspirations: the lack of imagination and creativity in half-court offensive situations down the stretch of games, and the presence of a consistent attack point on defense for their opponents.

Unfortunately for Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, he can’t remedy the latter without worsening the other issue.

Let’s start here, where Miami was leading by three with under 5 minutes to go:

Tobias Harris works Herro one-on-one from the perimeter, gets him on his hip, and attempts one of his patented one-legged runners right before Adebayo, who has to provide help defense, can attempt to block the shot. It goes in.

Miami calls for time-out but the look they get following the break was a contested Herro fadeaway baseline jumper. Given Tyler’s struggles on Tuesday, that attempt wasn’t of great quality.

Here’s how Philadelphia took the lead for good:

Harris plans to attack Herro again out in the perimeter, but because Miami is in a 2-3 zone defense, Lowry is there to close the gap in the middle of the lane. While that’s going on, Millsap provides a screen for Korkmaz who’s running to the wing and gets him space from Butler.

Adebayo, whose closest guy initially was Millsap but had his eyes on Harris the entire time, likely anticipating he’ll have to provide help defense again, realizes what’s going on off-ball half a second too late. He makes an admirable effort to rotate out to the shooter, but it’s too good of a look for a player who’s having a great night.

Swish.

How does Miami respond? Herro gets a decent-looking attempt from the top of the key at a three-ball, but it clanks off.

Then once again, Harris goes to work:

The Heat are back in man-to-man. Harris attacks Herro’s defense and gets him on his hip anew. Bam is there at the right time to provide the help defense, although Harris is skillful enough with his floater to measure the basket properly from that distance. The result? A 4-point Philly lead.

Spoelstra calls another time-out and the Heat score thanks to a Butler drive, then they get a stop, but Miami can’t capitalize as Martin’s pass for Lowry sails out of bounds.

That was a costly error because this time, it’s Maxey’s turn to seal the deal:

Martin is initially guarding Maxey but Herro’s man, Furkan Korkmaz, provides a screen. The Heat usually switch this type of action but Herro lags back as Martin tries to recover to Maxey, daring the second-year standout to shoot an open 3-ball. Given that Maxey is averaging 41.3% from deep this season, it’s a rather bold risk by Miami, but a necessary one.

Despite that, Maxey chooses to penetrate. Given he’s arguably the quickest player with the basketball in the NBA today, that’s unsurprising. Martin, a stout defender, can’t match up Maxey’s speed and ends up fouling him while recovering. Tyrese gets a shot up, makes it over both Martin and Adebayo’s outstretched arms, and completes the and-one play.

The next possession? Butler attempts a 26-foot 3-pointer. I’ll let you guess how that one turned out.

Maxey’s next two baskets were individual brilliance. Both times he had Herro on him. Both times Tyler couldn’t predict what his man would do. Both times Maxey drilled a 3-pointer right on his grill.

Both times after, Maxey sounded as popular as Rocky Balboa in the City of Brotherly Love.

It’s easy to lambast Miami for losing this game when All-Star talents like Embiid and Harden didn’t play, but prestige and reputation don’t determine wins and losses. Execution does. Sometimes, it’s the luck of the bounce.

As they like to say in the Philippines, “Bilog and Bola.” (The ball is round).

Aside from Maxey’s 28, Philadelphia also got 14 from Harris and 15 from Niang. Korkmaz, who was out of the rotation and only played because the 76ers were undermanned, scored 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting off the bench. Shake Milton, who scored 0 points combined in his last 3 outings, provided 20 as a reserve on 9-of-18 shooting, and was largely responsible for keeping his team in the driver’s seat to start the final quarter with a series of consecutive made baskets against Herro.

Heck, even DeAndre Jordan had 8 rebounds – 4 on each end of the floor – and was a +7 in his 25 minutes.

The Heat’s bench let them down. Given how well they were playing before this matchup, they were bound for one or two stinkers. It does raise the question, however, of which guys Spoelstra will rely on when it’s time to shorten the rotation come the postseason, when each mistake is magnified. Both Gabe Vincent and Victor Oladipo didn’t even play on Tuesday, yet nine Miami players saw the court.

And what is Miami going to do about the conundrum of Herro’s defense, given that he is clearly a major target of opponents down the stretch of games, which is something we can expect the Heat’s conference rivals to exploit often when games matter more in April?

Substituting him out of the contest also means taking out Miami’s best shot creator. The Heat have an overall net rating of +4.6, which ranks 6th in the NBA, but in “clutch” situations, they are only 0.1 points better than their opponents, which is 16th in the league, per NBA stats. Their FG% in those situations? A paltry 39.2%, ranked 26th, ahead only of non-playoff teams Orlando, San Antonio, Indiana, and New York.

Simply put, they are not good on offense in close games. What else if Herro isn’t on the floor?

Because of his scoring talent, Miami’s been able to get away with playing Herro tons down the stretch on the defensive end. Converting shots also means the opposition can’t take advantage of cross mismatches or transition opportunities like Philly just did. Tyler also deserves the benefit of the doubt that more often than not, he will be efficient on the offensive end.

But how about in situations when he isn’t? What if it’s Game 6 or 7 of the conference finals? What will Miami do? Would Spoelstra pull him out or take the risk of how he can be targeted?

The next time to test that theory could very well be on Thursday, when Miami hosts Golden State.

Steph Curry won’t play.

But if there’s anything both the Heat’s wins and losses this season have taught us, it’s that no matter who’s on the floor, anything can happen.